Chatting up Strangers

Chatting up Strangers – In the Triplicane Photo-Walk

 Yesterday I talked to a dozen strangers and a dog. I am not kidding, I really did. It being the third Sunday of the month I had gone to Triplicane- one of the oldest neighborhoods in old Madras as part of a monthly heritage walk where we walk the streets and take pictures of anything which catches our fancy. It’s an eclectic bunch who turn up for the photo-walk every month- a mixture of seasoned photographers, newbie’s with their first DSLR’s, heritage lovers and historians and people who are just along for the exercise and to enjoy the early morning streets.

The photographers during the walk specialize in different things – some look for architecture-old heritage buildings and stuff, some specialize in taking portraits of people on the streets – walking about and doing their stuff, some interested in the busy early morning activities -the paper delivery kids or the tea masters, some in documenting the street names – which keep changing with every change of government and there is even one guy who shoots (with the camera of course) every stray dog he meets.

And people like I, who do a mix of all these things together because I don’t have a niche as such and just click whatever I fancy at the moment. But in my (admittedly brief) experience – the hardest hobby of all is shooting personal portraits as most people are either suspicious or shy or a combination of both when it comes to posing for photographs by strangers. Well, to be fair to them wouldn’t we hesitate too, if a random guy walks up to and asks to shoot our picture?

And that’s the reason it takes great skill to convince them that their photograph is being shot for a harmless purpose. And the best way to convince them and put them at ease would be to chat them up. But there’s a catch in it. As we walk along as part of a large group and the group is in constant motion, the only way to stay in touch and not fall too far behind the group is to make sure that we chat up a stranger and convince them in a couple of minutes (all that we can afford) to share their life story with us and to pose happily for their photographs. And believe me it’s not an easy job.

Which is why I count my dozen men (and dog) as a well rounded figure of achievement. Especially when you consider that they include people as diverse as a fish-monger, a butcher , a milkman, a metal worker, a laundry worker, a carpenter, a sweet shop owner, a flower shop owner, assorted busy bodies who walk up to inquire what we are doing and even a man on a bike with a dog. When I chatted up the man he introduced to me his dog (named Dilson) a mastiff which he had taken to the nearby beach for its morning walk/run and was now taking home. And finally both, the owner Dilshad and the dog Dilson happily posed for their photographs to me.

And that’s what I meant by screwing up the courage to talk to random strangers on a whim. You can learn surprising things once you get past the initial awkwardness of starting a conversation. Like the fishmonger who explained to me that he used separate sharp knives’ for separate varieties of fish depending on their scale types. Like the butcher who carried on our entire conversation in good grammatical English and giving me his mobile phone number offered to home deliver choice cuts of meat to my house. Like the milkman who spent 100 seconds of our 120 second conversation decrying the modern habit of going in for packet mil which was slowly driving their tribe out of existence. Like the laundry owner who explained that his landlord was the Nawab of Arcot and had been so for the hundred years his laundry was functioning from the same premises. Interesting little tidbits like that is what I look for in such talks.

And here are some of the pictures of those who posed for me….


And that reminds me of an online conversation I was part of in a blogger group recently where some guys were talking about how difficult it was to approach and talk to a strange girl (in a public space like a train for instance) who was reading an interesting book they had read too. As I said there and repeat again here, I have never found such situations difficult because when I walk up to that girl the only thing my mind’s looking forward to, is having a long conversation and not a long relationship. As long as you are clear in your own mind about the topic on hand, you need not be nervous about chatting up anyone. Do I make sense?


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